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Now more than ever, Americans must offer humanitarian aid to outsiders

Op-ed: 2017 could be a year of record setting humanitarian need.

Now that Donald Trump has assumed the presidency, much of the world's attention is on how the U.S. role will change in terms of engagement in conflicts and crises abroad. Indications are that the Trump administration will be much less interested in offering the largesse of the U.S. to assist those in need, just as worldwide need continues to rise. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees notes that one in 100 of those now living on the planet are displaced — 65 million people — the largest number since World War II. In response, the U.N. has made its largest financial request ever for 2017: $22.2 billion. But apparently, executive orders are being drafted that would drastically reduce U.S. funding to the U.N. and other international organizations. This presents a dichotomy for Americans, who have historically been generous in working to alleviate human suffering and view their government as acting in accordance with their interests.

Humanitarian engagement is necessary to respond to crises brought about by natural causes — earthquakes, famines, hurricanes — as well as man-made acts, generally war and violence. Sadly, today many nations suffer because of the lethal convergence of man-made and natural hardships. In 2004, a tsunami racked Sri Lanka after a magnitude 9.1 earthquake. At the time the country was in the midst of a 20-year civil war (it ended in 2009). Countries experiencing internal conflict such as Somalia have at the same time experienced devastating famines. Moreover, we increasingly face the question of whether man-made acts play a role in what appear to be natural disasters. There has been concern that fracking in Oklahoma might be triggering the state's rise in earthquakes. And consider that as oceans rise — a man-made result of climate change — people living in coastal areas will need to move, increasing the risks of crowding, shortages, pandemics and human conflict.

Natural disasters can be difficult to predict. It is almost impossible to know when an earthquake will hit, and there is less certainty about the impact of a hurricane. It's a bit easier looking at the conditions that can bring about a famine or pandemic, though often the international community's responses fall short, as they did with the Ebola crisis. But war and violence are predictable when rising racial and ethnic tensions, and massive human rights violations, are present. Again, too often, the international community fails to take sufficient action to intercede. The 1994 Rwandan genocide could have been anticipated; the warning signs were there.

There is an important lesson those in the field recognize that seems often lost on policymakers: It is better to attack the cause and intervene early on than to deal with the symptoms and a more serious calamity that can follow. Syria is a textbook case. Effective intervention to resolve the conflict early on would have prevented the massive migration of refugees that Europe has dealt with. Though a recent cease fire provides some hope, much of the country is still occupied by rebel and extremist forces. The Syrian conflict is not going to resolve soon, and it is possible that in the coming year areas under opposition control will come under siege. The heartbreaking images of bloodied children being pulled from piles of rubble and traumatized refugees on the run may soon again be broadcast on CNN.

The civil war in South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, continues to escalate with allegations of ethnic cleansing and the horrifying use of gang rape. There are other brewing calamities in Africa including in Burundi, a country dealing with a serious political crisis, where an expected 3 million people will need humanitarian assistance in the coming year. Other conflicts show little signs of ending including in Yemen where a civil war between the Saudi backed government and radical groups continues. Lutheran World Relief points to a number of potential hot spots in 2017 including Venezuela, which continues to careen to civil unrest; areas of the African Lake Chad Basin affected by the terrorist group Boko Haram; and Central America, where gang violence and corruption are widespread. Add to that the current hot spots of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and 2017 could be a year of record setting humanitarian need.

Just because U.S. foreign policy takes a more disinterested turn regarding humanitarian engagement doesn't mean Americans cannot show that we care. In 2017, we will need to more than ever offer our generosity, time and voices to alleviate the suffering that is around us.

David J. Smith is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. and a former senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is based in Rockville, Md., and can be reached at david@foragecenter.org.

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